In Indonesia, deforestation is increasing disasters caused by severe weather and climate change

By | March 30, 2024

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Roads turned into murky brown rivers, homes were swept away by strong currents and bodies were pulled from the mud in deadly flash floods and landslides after heavy rains hit West Sumatra in early March, marking one of the latest deadly natural disasters marked. disasters in Indonesia.

Government officials blamed the flooding on heavy rainfall, but environmental groups have cited the disaster as the latest example of deforestation and environmental degradation compounding the effects of severe weather across Indonesia.

“This disaster occurred not only due to extreme weather factors, but also due to the ecological crisis,” Indonesian environmental rights group Indonesian Forum for the Environment wrote in a statement. “If the environment continues to be ignored, we will continue to reap ecological disasters.”

A vast tropical archipelago straddling the equator, Indonesia is home to the third largest rainforest in the world, with a variety of endangered animals and plants, including orangutans, elephants, giant and flowering forest flowers. Some don’t live anywhere else.

For generations, the forests have also provided livelihoods, food and medicine, while playing a central role in the cultural practices of millions of Indonesia’s indigenous people.

Since 1950, more than 74 million hectares of Indonesian rainforest – an area twice the size of Germany – have been felled, burned or demolished for the development of palm oil, paper and rubber plantations, mining and other raw materials, according to Global Forest Service.

Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil, one of the largest exporters of coal and a top producer of pulp for paper. It also exports oil and gas, rubber, tin and other resources. And it also has the world’s largest nickel reserves – a crucial material for electric vehicles, solar panels and other goods needed for the green energy transition.

According to the Global Carbon Project, Indonesia has consistently ranked as one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, with emissions coming from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and peat fires.

According to the World Bank, it is also highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including extreme events such as floods and droughts, long-term changes due to sea level rise, shifts in rainfall patterns and rising temperatures. In recent decades, the country has already seen the consequences of climate change: heavier rainfall, landslides and floods during the rainy season, and more fires during a longer dry season.

But forests can play a crucial role in reducing the impact of some extreme weather events, says Aida Greenbury, a sustainability expert who focuses on Indonesia.

Floods can be slowed because trees and vegetation absorb rainwater and reduce erosion. In the dry season, forests release moisture that helps mitigate the effects of droughts, including fires.

But if the forests become smaller, these advantages also apply.

A 2017 study reported that forest conversion and deforestation expose bare land to rainfall, causing soil erosion. Frequent harvesting activities – such as those on palm oil plantations – and the removal of ground vegetation lead to further soil compaction, causing rain to run off the surface instead of entering groundwater reservoirs. Downstream erosion also increases sediment in rivers, making rivers shallower and increasing flood risk, the study said.

Following the deadly floods in Sumatra in early March, West Sumatra Governor Mahyeldi Ansharullah said there was strong evidence of illegal logging around locations affected by floods and landslides. That, combined with extreme rainfall, inadequate drainage systems and improper housing construction, contributed to the disaster, he said.

Experts and environmentalists have pointed out that deforestation is also worsening disasters in other regions of Indonesia: In 2021, environmentalists partly blamed deadly floods in Kalimantan on environmental degradation caused by large-scale mining and palm oil activities. In Papua, deforestation was partly attributed to floods and landslides that killed more than a hundred people in 2019.

There are some signs of progress: In 2018, Indonesian President Joko Widodo imposed a three-year freeze on new permits for palm oil plantations. And according to government data, the rate of deforestation has decreased between 2021 and 2022.

But experts warn that deforestation in Indonesia is unlikely to stop anytime soon if the government continues to move forward with new mining and infrastructure projects such as new nickel smelters and cement factories.

“Many land use permits and land investments have already been granted to companies, and many of these areas are already prone to disasters,” said Arie Rompas, an Indonesia-based forestry expert with Greenpeace.

Newly elected President Prabowo Subianto, who is expected to take power in October, has pledged to continue Widodo’s development policies, including large-scale food plantations, mining and other infrastructure developments, all linked to deforestation.

Environmental watchdogs also warn that environmental protections in Indonesia are weakening, including the passage of the controversial Omnibus Law, which removed an article from the Forestry Law regarding the minimum area of ​​forest that must be maintained in development projects.

“The removal of that article makes us very concerned (about deforestation) for years to come,” Rompas said.

While experts and activists acknowledge that development is essential for the survival of Indonesia’s economy, they argue that it must be done in a way that takes the environment into account and includes better land planning.

“We cannot continue on the same path we are on,” says sustainability expert Greenbury. “We have to make sure that the soil, the land in the forest, doesn’t die out.”

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The Associated Press’ climate and environmental reporting receives support from several private foundations. View more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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